It seems appropriate that a play about an unbeatable Yorkshire cyclist was penned by a similarly driven actress from across the Pennines.
Bolton’s Maxine Peake has successfully adapted her Radio 4 play focusing on the life of Morley’s Beryl Burton who was overall British Women’s Road Race Champion for a staggering 25 years running. Along the way she was also world champion seven times, smashed numerous records and beat top class male cyclists, all while holding down a full time job and raising a daughter. As Peake reveals, she did all this despite a weak heart caused by a bout of rheumatic fever that caused her to miss her 11-plus exam – something which always haunted this bright woman.
Burton’s health problems left her determined to ‘make her mark’, despite being told that by doctors and teachers that she should avoid hard exercise and wouldn’t amount to anything. She found a vehicle to do just that on two wheels where, a matter of months after joining Morley cycling club, she was winning national and world titles.
It’s quite a challenge to make a succession of tableaux on fixed bikes interesting to the non-bike fan. Peake gets round this with cleverly staged race scenes in the bike shop where Beryl crushes the opposition, as well as employing a clever tactic of choosing to look at what makes a champion. It is a measure of Peake’s skill as a new writer that she manages to make the obsessive Burton human by drawing out the insecurities that drive all the great champions on.
We’re drawn into a world where Burton is working on a West Yorkshire rhubarb farm by day and by night is on her bike for long training runs fuelled by baby bottles filled with rice pudding and honey. It is a timely reminder that greatness is built on hard work, not just luck or natural talent. Burton subscribed to golf great Gary Player’s classic maxim ‘the harder I practice, the luckier I get’ as she put in the hard miles.
Yorkshire graft and grit resulted in a victory on the Morley 12-hour time trial when she sailed past her main male rival with a cheery ‘fancy a liquorice allsort’ setting a record distance that still stands to this day, and will probably never be beaten.
Penny Layden’s Beryl is by turn spiky, loving and insecure, really bringing to life a passionate, proud Yorkshire woman battling her inner demons and the establishment whom she believed had her down for nowt.
But the other side of this funny and moving play is a love story. Beryl’s husband Charlie introduced her to cycling before giving up his own career because Beryl ‘was the better cyclist’. Instead he became her mechanic, sports psychologist, driver, cheerleader and – as Beryl notes – best mate. Without his self-sacrifice, unusual for the 1960s, Beryl would never have achieved all she did and Peake generously gives him equal billing.
She is helped by John Elkington’s witty and nuanced portrayal of a man prepared to put his ego to one side in the shared quest for greatness. Equally good is Emmerdale regular Chelsea Halfpenny who plays Denise Burton – and numerous other roles with great aplomb – who overcame her strange childhood to eventually beat her mum to a national title. This doesn’t go down well with Beryl who refuses to shake her hand because she believes her daughter hadn’t put the graft in during the race.
Peake herself has described this play as being ‘warm’ (which it is) and funny too, but she also peels back the layers of the utter self-absorption needed to be great, and notes it was achieved on heavy bikes with no energy drinks and all the while holding down a job. It is frightening to think what Beryl might have achieved in the modern cycling world where, with all due respect to the new generation of women bikers, she would probably thrash the lot of them and become the superstar she never was in her heyday.
Peake has been in enough quality work to know what good dialogue sounds like. When she writes an original drama, she is going to be as great a wordsmith as she is an actress.
Where: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
When: until July 25, 2014